Atlanta Coach Bobby Petrino
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
Flowery Branch, Ga.
Alge Crumpler sat in a small office inside the Atlanta Falcons’ training facility earlier this week, talking about his friend and teammate, the fallen Falcon, quarterback Michael Vick.
Crumpler, Atlanta’s tight end, said he spoke with Vick several times a week — not so much about football, but about life. Crumpler passes along scripture passages from his mother, and well wishes from teammates. The last time they spoke, Crumpler said, they joked about playing the Madden NFL 08 video game online. But even that was bittersweet: Yesterday, EA Sports pulled Vick from the rosters of Madden NFL 08.
Vick’s fall from grace is stunning, so traumatic that its effect on the team is difficult to measure. Crumpler and his teammates have spent the past several weeks putting this situation into perspective, trying to keep a team that once had lofty aspirations inspired.
Vick and Crumpler were members of the 2001 draft: Vick was the first player taken. Crumpler, taken in the second round, was the 35th player selected. They were going to contend for the Super Bowl together; Crumpler said he could feel it. In fact, Crumpler said he saw it.
“I had a vision that we were going to win the Super Bowl together,” Crumpler said. “I had a vision of winning the Super Bowl, and it was always going to be with Mike. I’ve had that vision since the day we were drafted. I want to still have it, but I just don’t.
Would Crumpler ever catch another pass from Vick?
“Not here,” Crumpler said, referring to the Falcons.
“I think Mike is going to be back in the league,” he added, and then said: “I think it’s going to take a lot of ‘show me’ for Mike to get back into the league. It’s going to have to be more than words.”
Everyone has carved out their turf on this issue. Like Crumpler, I feel that Vick should and will return to the N.F.L., as a quarterback. Suggestions to the contrary betray an underlying prejudice that goes far beyond the legal issue at hand. Vick should receive a yearlong sentence for pleading guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy stemming from his connection to dogfighting but should serve no more than six months in jail.
The more intriguing question is how Vick’s fall from grace will affect a city that had become deeply invested in him.
Friends of mine who live in Atlanta say, half-jokingly, that the Falcons are black America’s team. The city has a large African-American population, and a substantial portion of the team’s season-ticket holders are African-Americans.
On the other hand, Atlanta has had an up-and-down relationship with its pro football team, and the fans are largely regarded as fair-weather ones. Right now, the weather is stormy.
The Falcons may have to deal with empty seats this season. Last year, they drew an average of 55,000 fans in two preseason games; this year they drew an average of 40,000.
In many ways, Atlanta’s fans have never stood on solid ground. The Vick episode is simply the latest blow.
Atlanta played its first season in 1966 and didn’t have a winning season until 1971. The Falcons have never had back-to-back winning campaigns, with or without Vick.
The Falcons did reach the Super Bowl in the 1998 season but that moment was tarnished when Eugene Robinson, a star safety, was arrested on charges of soliciting a female undercover police officer posing as a prostitute the night before the game. The Falcons lost, 34-19, to the Denver Broncos. The next season they finished a dismal 5-11.
In 2004, Vick led Atlanta to an 11-5 record and the National Football Conference championship game. In 2005, the Falcons finished 8-8. Last season, they finished 7-9.
Before Vick officially pleaded guilty 11 days ago, there was a sense in Atlanta that the African-American community was split down the middle regarding its star quarterback.
Now there’s a resignation in that community that he did something seriously wrong, that he will have to atone for what he did and that in all likelihood he will never play for the Falcons again.
“But if we can win, if we can show some form of competitiveness on a consistent basis, I think we’ll be all right,” Crumpler said.
Vick apologized the day he pleaded guilty. He apologized to the Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank, to Falcons fans, to the city of Atlanta. But when Vick said that he had also found Jesus, I felt that the time for talking had come to an end. Faced with being hemmed in, as Vick was, one can easily find the Lord.
At this point, Vick has to demonstrate his remorse, not only enunciate it.
As for Crumpler; the new starting quarterback, Joey Harrington; the new coach, Bobby Petrino; and Blank, the challenge is to move on and build a consistent winner, something Atlanta has never had even with Vick running the show.
In Atlanta, this is a time for deeds, not words.